By the time of the New Testament, Rome was the major world power, and it was in control of the Holy Land during the entire earthly life of Jesus and during the lives of his immediate followers.
Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus. He was crucified during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius. The book of Acts records the Roman emperor Claudius by name. And both St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred at Rome by the Emperor Nero.
It is clear that the Romans were extraordinarily important to the world in which the New Testament was written.
All that makes it worth asking: Who were the Romans, and where did their civilization come from?
The Legendary Founding
The answer is shrouded in the mists of time, and ancient legends get in the way of an exact knowledge of the facts.
According to the Romans’ own account, the city of Rome was founded in the wake of the famous Trojan War.
Specifically, it was founded on April 21st in 753 B.C. by two twins named Romulus and Remus.
These two twins were supposedly the grandsons of an earlier king—Numitor—but they were raised by a she-wolf, and so they were feral children.
When they founded the city of Rome they had a quarrel, and Romulus killed Remus. Romulus thus became the sole and original king of Rome.
The Roman Kingdom
This led to a period known as “the Roman kindom,” in which Rome was ruled by a series of kings.
This period is supposed to have lasted from the founding in 753 B.C. until about 509 B.C.
It is characterized by the fact that Rome was ruled by kings, just like other peoples were. During this time seven kings supposedly reigned over Rome, beginning with Romulus and ending with Tarquinius Superbus, or “Tarquin the Proud.”
Eventually, however, the people of Rome were fed up with their kings and overthrew them, leading to a new period in the history of Rome.
The Roman Republic
This led to the “Roman Republic,” a period in which Rome lacked a monarch.
The word “republic” comes from the Latin res publica, which means “public thing”—a reference to the fact that how the state was governed was now a public thing rather than a matter for just the kings.
To replace the kings, power was divided between two men, known as consuls, who were elected every year and had significant checks on their powers, including term limits.
The Roman Republic lasted from the overthrow of the kings around 509 B.C. until the first century B.C.
The Roman Empire
The Romans found that their system of divided government, with power split up among the consuls and other government officials, was at times unwieldy.
As a result, in times of crisis, they sometimes appointed dictators—men who could run the state as single individuals, but only for a limited period prescribed by law, to keep the dictator from turning into a tyrant.
Eventually this system broke down, when one particular dictator—Julius Caesar—engineered a situation in which he was proclaimed “dictator in perpetuity.”
That was too close to the idea of kingship, and the situation didn’t last long. He was quickly assassinated by a conspiracy in the Senate.
His heir was a man named Octavian, and he eventually accumulated as much power as Julius Caesar had possessed—and more.
Some wanted him to be given the title “king,” but Octavian knew that would be dangerous, so he allowed the Roman Senate to vote him different titles.
One title became the name he is known by today: Augustus.
The other was a military title that meant “commander.” In Latin this word is imperator, and from it we get the English word emperor.
Augustus this became the first of the Roman emperors, and the Roman empire was born.
Rome and the Life of Jesus
Rome had been accumulating power through conquest even since the time of the Roman kings, and by the reign of Augustus Caesar it had become the dominant power in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
They were in political control of the Holy Land at the time Jesus was born, and it was they who had appointed Herod as “king of the Jews.” It was also Augustus Caesar who called for the enrollment that led Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.
The impact of the Romans on the gospel story is thus apparent right from the beginning.
Their impact was still present at the time of Jesus’ adult ministry, when other members of the Herod family were ruling parts of his kingdom, and when the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, agreed to have Jesus crucified.
“We Have No King But Caesar”
It is ironic that, at the time of Jesus’ Passion, the crowds cried, “We have no king but Caesar!”
The Roman ruler of the day was Augustus’s successor, Tiberius Caesar, and he did not technically have the title “king.” The Romans were too proud of having overthrown their kings for that. But the emperors were functioning as kings, and it was obvious to everyone.
The Empire Strikes Back
The power of the emperors continued to have an impact on the early Church. Just a few decades later it was the Emperor Nero who put St. Peter and St. Paul to death at Rome.
Later emperors launched the persecutions that martyred so many early Christians—and paradoxically caused the Church to grow, until the Roman empire itself was converted to Christ.
The Roman empire was something that the first Christians had to deal with constantly. It loomed over their lives and tried to destroy them and their faith.
It will help us all understand and appreciate our faith better if we know something about the Roman empire and the impact it had on the Bible and the early Church.
The persecution by the Roman authorities is a big part of what the book of Revelation is about.
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